High on Happiness on California’s Highway 1

Karen Kwan’s road trip diary as she explores California’s Pacific Coast in one sexy vintage whip

Morro Rock. Photo courtesy of Danna Dykstra-Coy.

It was probably a scene from a movie that planted “drive the Pacific Coast Highway” high on my bucket list. Initial travel plans were halfheartedly made some 15 or so years ago, but I never followed through.

And while I’ve never done a vision board, I maintain one in my head, and the universe appeared to have read my mind: “We would like to invite you to take part in a dream drive down the Central Coast of California,” read the invite. After 18 months of closure due to massive landslides caused by severe storms, the longest highway in California was set to reopen, and to celebrate  it, the state was hosting a convoy of vehicles ranging from 1934—the year the highway was established with Highway 1 signage—to present day. The 80 or so cars would be making the drive from Monterey to Morro Bay.

A quick reply (“I would love to take part,” read my professional email reply, but it should’ve read “Yasss! All sorts of yes!”) and a couple of weeks later, I flew down to sunny California to start the drive in Monterey.

Karen had a sweet ride! This 957 Mercedes-Benz 300SL Roadster. Photo courtesy of Visit California.

7:30 a.m. After a long day of travel and a jetlagged dinner at Fisherman’s Wharf the night prior, we’re buoyed by sheer excitement as we meet the 80-something media folks from around the world taking part in the dream drive at the start point at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca. The vintage and modern cars are lined up by decade, and although I knew I’d been assigned a Mercedes, nothing prepared me for the beauty I’d scored. “This car is worth $2 million,” shared a fellow writer. “You scored big time.” I can’t speak to its horsepower, mileage or any other car specs, but with its flawless cherry red paint job to its buttery caramel leather interior, the 1957 Mercedes-Benz 300SL Roadster I was going to spend the day in was as breathtaking as the coastal views I was about to drink in.

With my new friend David (who was driving the vehicle on behalf of the owner, a good buddy of his), we slathered on SPF, and I tied the obligatory convertible-riding scarf around my head and we hit the road.

Driving along Highway 1. Photo courtesy of Visit California.

7:50 a.m. “It’s so beautiful,” I exclaim, in awe of the ocean crashing on the coast. I’d say this many, many more times throughout our drive.

8:05 a.m. We drive over Bixby Bridge, an iconic bridge I never thought I’d see in real life. Driving over it is underwhelming, as it turns out. Viewing its simple beauty from a distance is the ticket, I guess. We’re on a schedule, though, so no time to pull over nearby.

A room with a view at Ventana Big Sur.

12:15 p.m. We stop at Ventana Big Sur for lunch. It’s a buffet lunch is delicious but truth be told, I’m in a bit of a daze, pondering how I’ve played my cards to land on this expansive terrace with lush forest views in Big Sur. Good karma is the only explanation.

2:00 p.m. Back on the road, with my heart aching each time we zoom past a vista point, knowing we are on a strict itinerary with the dream-drive convoy, I shyly ask David if we can pull over at the next especially scenic spot for photos. “Of course, we can stop whenever you want!” he says. “You don’t know when you’ll be back here!” And he’s right (although I am already plotting  how I can travel back to explore on my own schedule).

2:05 p.m. David parks the Benz and we step out and breathe in the salty air and I snap endless photos of the ocean and coastline, knowing I have dozens already but I just can’t quit. “Is it okay if I sit on the back of the car, I promise I’ll be careful!” I ask David, and he doesn’t even hesitate in replying yes. His friend who owns the car isn’t the kind of guy who thinks this rare car should be locked away and just admired from afar. “He says the whole point is to have fun with it!” shares David.

The Inn By The Pier is also a worthy stop. Photo courtesy of Jim Bartsh.

3:12 p.m. “My first experience on Highway 1? I was very young, maybe five or six, and my family went camping in Big Sur,” shares David. “Waking up in the morning to the cold air in the dark forest and the bright sunshine coming through the trees and shining on the river, making it sparkle golden ad the bright reflections of sunlight—I thought it was one of the most beautiful things I’d seen in my life, and I still do,”

3:30 p.m. After attempting to precariously snap photos as we coast down Highway 1 most of the day, I decide to put the phone away and just be in the moment. We have professional photographers with fancy cameras and drones documenting the day for us, after all. It’s the best decision I make the whole trip.

4:00 p.m. Delayed by a stop on the highway due to construction, we arrive late to Heart Ranch Winery for a wine tasting. We stretch our legs, admire the other vehicles taking part in the dream drive. I spend most of the break just taking in the sound of the waves and watching a family enjoying a day on the quiet beach, and I can’t help thinking that the west coast truly is the best coast.

Morro Rock. Photo courtesy of Danna Dykstra-Coy.

5:14 p.m. Pulling into parking lot beside the impressive Morro Rock, a volcanic plug (aka an extinct volcano), I find myself working hard to commit every sight, sound and smell to memory and making a promise to myself to return soon to hike, stop at every vista point in the near future and run the Big Sur Marathon. I might technically be able to check off Highway 1 off my bucket list, but that little taste wasn’t nearly enough.